Strengthening Families: Program provides parenting, communication skills

Peace in her home. That’s the gift that Aileen Cromwell said the Strengthening Families Program (SFP) through Lutheran Services Carolinas gave to her.

“It’s a wonderful program, I can’t say enough about it,” she said. “It’s a new way of parenting that works both for the parent and the child.”

Before finding SFP, she was having a hard time connecting with her foster daughter. Cromwell has been a foster parent in South Carolina for over 10 years, but usually works with younger children. So when this headstrong and opinionated preteen was placed in her home, Cromwell found herself asking other foster parents for advice. How could she communicate with her without being too overbearing?

Another foster parent suggested she look into SFP, and it changed everything. Cromwell participated in the program with her foster daughter, and then completed it with her 12-year-old biological daughter.

“It was awesome. I wish I had known about it earlier,” Cromwell said. “It brought peace in my home really. I’m just so impressed with my daughter. Rather than her getting in trouble and getting mad and upset, we are just spending more time together.”

What is the Strengthening Families Program?

The Strengthening Families Program is an evidence-based family skills training program for high-risk and general population families. Parents and youth attend weekly skills classes together, learning parenting and communication skills.

Lutheran Services Carolinas (LSC) established a SFP in Charleston County, South Carolina after receiving a grant from the Children’s Trust of South Carolina, an organization that dedicates itself to preventing child abuse, injury and neglect. LSC’s program is facilitated by Sara Ramsey, lead clinical specialist and Strengthening Families site coordinator.

“My heart is really prevention. I love when we can stop maltreatment before it happens…stop it before the kids go through the trauma,” Ramsey said. “It’s so rewarding to see the change in people.”

The grant is for children between the ages of 6 and 11, but many of the families who participate also bring their older children to the sessions to volunteer. Participants complete a 14-session weekly program. Each session begins with a family meal, without cellphones, before the parents and children separate to work with group leaders. At the end of the session, they come back together to complete an activity.

When they split into parent and children groups, Ramsey said parents discuss communication with their children, forming bonds with the child, positive parenting strategies, how to give effective directions and other parenting skills. The children work on identifying emotions, peer refusal, emotional regulation skills and speaking and listening skills.

Some of the families who participate seek out help from LSC like Cromwell, while others are referred to the program by the Department of Social Services.

“It’s a family thing. The whole family comes to strengthen their bonds. They also get incentives based on what the family needs, like a gas card or an Uber card,” Ramsey said. “We provide child care for younger kids, teenagers get volunteer hours for school; it’s very inclusive for the entire family.”

Louise Deely, who is on the advisory board for LSC’s program, works with the teenagers during the sessions. She is also known as the “dessert lady” because she loves bringing baked goods to the families.

Deely is a strong supporter of the program, and she sees a real difference in the families at the end of the 14 weeks. There is always a graduation ceremony, complete with testimonials about how the program changed their lives.

“I see a difference in the families. I think it really works,” Deely said. “There’s a great feeling of togetherness in the room by the end of the 14 weeks.”

Still serving families during COVID-19

It took a little bit of creativity, but Ramsey said the program has maintained its effectiveness even through the COVID-19 pandemic. Without much time to prepare, the team had to figure out a way to transition to virtual weekly sessions while still encouraging participation and making sure the families had access to the technology.

They met twice weekly via Zoom. The children met from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., then they paused to allow for the meal, homework and bedtime before parents met from 8 to 9 p.m. Ramsey dropped off supplies and gift cards for meals each week, so the families were still given a free meal.

“While it’s not ideal to deliver things virtually, families were a lot more receptive to going virtual than we anticipated,” Ramsey said. “They showed up and after about the third virtual session the feel of it was as if we were physically face to face.”

The group was fortunate enough to hold an in-person, socially-distanced graduation ceremony. It was drive-in style with a large screen the team used to project a review game for families to complete on their phones in real-time with the rest of the group. The families also decorated their cars and had a pizza picnic. Families gave speeches and ended with a spontaneous parking lot dance party.

During one of those speeches, a father told the group that before SFP he didn’t realize how important family time was. But now they bought a table to put outside and scheduled a time to eat there together at least twice a week.

“This may not seem like much to an outside person, but this represents an enormous transformation for this family,” Ramsey said. “When they first came to us mom and dad were separated and living in different households. The tension between them was palpable. The kids favored one parent over the other, and the other was completely withdrawn. By the end of the program, the parents were sitting together and having good discussions to present a united front in their parenting.”

Ramsey hopes they can get back to in-person sessions soon, but until then she is looking toward the future and expanding LSC’s footprint. The nonprofit received another grant from the Children’s Trust of South Carolina to implement SFP virtually in Horry County this summer.